Skin and Bones

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Jake Gogats


ghost forest
Photo Credit: Chris Wenger

I woke to the sound of chanting. It wasn’t English; that was clear. It almost sounded like—

No.

I saw the sun rising outside of my cabin, so I shrugged off my fatigue and began to prepare for the day. My wife moaned as I opened the door and let the sun in. I chuckled and shut it behind me.

It was a sight, the village in the morning. The sun would rise from the East, our home. The frosted dew covered the cabins and the grass, giving the whole town a white glow. I said a habitual prayer to God, asking that the sun would carry the wealth of Britain along with warmth. Then I proceeded to knock on the doors of the men I would hunt with, their groaning audible through the thin wooden walls.

As I sat in the town center, I stared into the distant forest. We’d cleared far past the edge of town, past where it was already cleared, to make sure we would see them if they ever came. Not that we expected it.

That day, the forest seemed darker, as if the trees cast denser shadows. I could barely see past the first row of trees. I felt as if the forest didn’t want me to see into it, like it wanted its privacy today.

Suddenly, I realized that my men were around me, rubbing the tired out of their eyes and muttering words of hunger and cold.

“Everyone ate all the food last night; we’ll have to catch breakfast or ask the farmers.” This brought more groans; the farmers had a certain distaste for us hunters; we got all the glory and they got the complaints, and the modest rationing of food during the winter did not sit well with townspeople.

So we set off into the forest, but it felt different than the hundred times we’d done it before. This was a new a forest, a new spirit. The others didn’t seem fazed by the added darkness, so I ignored it and opened my eyes a bit wider.

The day started all right; we caught some beasts we knew were safe. It was a sufficient lunch for our section of the town, and there was some left over for dinner.

The second trip out was different.

We crept into the forest just as in the morning, this time with fuller stomachs. I knew that meant the men would be less motivated to catch dinner, but they’d soon feel hunger seeping back into their bones, an indelible part of our life.

I spotted a deer. The rule was to not stop walking unless you spotted something, both a way of keeping the hunt moving and alerting when something had been found.

They all froze, swerving their heads to the deer. I raised my gun, asserting this as my own. It was a huge buck; it could keep us eating for quite a while if shot and stored properly. My gun was already loaded, and I was the best shot.

It was clean, and everyone gave cheers as the deer fell with a mangled face.

The hunter was the one to claim the kill, so everyone stood back as I approached the deer. It felt as if the deer corpse was tugging me forward while my instincts told me to stay with my men. It wouldn’t help the respect I’d earned if I cowered from a dead buck.

The walk dragged on in my head, and I noticed the darkness of the forest again. This time it was real, though; night was approaching. We had to bring back the meat in time for dinner, and so I sped up in fear of a sudden winter nightfall. The trees blurred along with my senses, making me see bright colors of fall despite it being midwinter.

Loud chanting blasted through the forest without warning, causing me to lose my footing. I fell into a bush, and the chanting ceased. Only a low giggle was audible, but I couldn’t focus enough to find its source.

Through the leaves of the bushes, I saw a figure.

It was tall and dark, and the bright colors I had seen before weren’t there. I squinted and finally made out the figure of a woman.

Slowly, I stood to face an Indian with only long, dark hair to cover her body. There was a tree obstructing my view of the others, but they obeyed the rules and waited for my call.

I spotted my gun on the ground next to the woman, and at that moment she bent down to pick it up.

“Don’t touch that!” I whispered, as if my voice wasn’t allowed to alert the others. Her fingers stopped and she stood back up.

She took a step toward me, now so close I couldn’t see anything but her face, simple and hardened. Leaning into me, my world drifted into a trance of attraction and intrigue. I held the kiss, letting the feeling spread through my body; I put my hands on her waist and brought her closer. Through my heavy clothing, I felt her body. It wasn’t warm; rather, it pierced my furs with cold.

Only then as I became truly entranced by the forest and this woman, her mouth started to taste differently. I tried to ignore it, but then it became the taste of rotten meat and her tongue felt weak and dry. I opened my eyes and drew my head from the kiss, seeing the true figure I had osculated.

She was unemotional as her body rotted away from her. Her hair shriveled and turned a dirty greenish brown; her skin grew fungus; maggots seeped out from unseen wounds; her fingernails grew to freakish length. Worst of all was her face. Her slight smile grew as her lips fell away along with her receding eyes. Small bugs crawled through openings and chewed away at her skin until her body could not support itself.

All that was left of her was a skull and bones when I left. The woman I loved for just a moment.

I grabbed my gun, covered with insects, and turned away from the scene. The bugs flew off my gun as I ran to the buck, almost expecting it to be rotted away by the time I got there.

*

Supper was joyful, everyone shrugging off the cold with fire and good meat, although my wife was irritated because of my distracted gaze. I wasn’t guilty; I was curious. What happened in the forest? Why did even now the forest seem darker than I’d ever seen?

“James, how was the forest today?” I asked.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, was there something funny?” I tried not to look too concerned, staring into my glass.

“Hell, I don’t know. What’s got you?”

“Nothing… nothing.” I took the hard apple cider and walked listlessly to my cabin. At the threshold, I heard my wife’s footsteps behind me.

“I feel it too,” she murmured.

I stopped with my hand in the door, taking a sip from my drink. Before I turned, she spoke again. “What happened in the forest?”

At this, I poured out the rest of my drink and walked to my wife. “What are you talking about?”

“What did you do?” she demanded.

“What do you mean? I shot a buck.”

“Oh my Lord, do I believe you?” There was a strange combination of anger and curiosity in her eyes, fused in a way I’d never seen in her before. “Something’s been disturbed.”

“Will you get to the point?”

Letting out a long sigh, she managed to bring her eyes to my level. She was afraid of something. Was it me? Was I the one who frightened my wife so?

“You were tested today, Howard. I don’t know how; I don’t know where, but I do know that you failed.”

I didn’t say anything.

She took another breath. “And now we all have to pay the price.”

“Jesus, Marie, nothing’s going to happen. God has given us this land; don’t you remember the ready crops and brimming forest? Have you forgotten God’s preference?”

“Do you honestly think those crops were from God?”

“The Plague cleared the land for us.”

“And who grew the crops?”

I knew the answer, but before I could speak she continued. “The Indians, Howard. I know they were dead and gone when we came, but this is not God’s work.”

“Then whose? Who cleared the forest and gave us this all?”

“I can’t say… but I know God has no part in this New World.”

“Then who? What has done this to me?”

Marie walked past me to our cabin and went inside. I ran to her through the pitch dark. She sat on the side of the bed opposite to me, looking at the wall. She was shaking. “What’s going to happen?”

I know now that she is right; there is reason for me to fear. “I don’t know.”

*

Knocking, banging, rumbling.

These sounds surrounded the cabin, and for a moment I expected the hunters to come through the door, laughing at my fright. But no one came, and the sounds did not stop. The cabin, the New World, was consumed with this terrifying noise.

It was still dark, but I turned on the gas lamp, judging it appropriate.

The light shone on where my wife should have been in my bed, but instead I saw the rotting Indian woman I had loved. Abruptly, the light went out, and I saw nothing.

For a minute I sat, listening the banging getting louder and louder, almost expecting my house to cave in and kill us…

And then finally it stopped, leaving me paralyzed.

I was frozen for what felt like hours and hours, but finally I made my way back into bed. I turned to my left, to where my wife should have been.

“Marie?”

“Yes?”

“I love you,” I lied.

She chuckled and went to sleep.

*

The next morning, I woke up with the soggy feeling of blood in my clothes.

Panic. The blanket, my clothes, my skin, all soaked in blood; was it my own? I suddenly felt trapped in my bed, as if the sodden blanket had fused with my skin and the blood would never dry. I thrashed, the body of my wife convulsing along with mine until I finally detached myself. I stood and panted, still covered in hardening blood that felt like an unseen force grabbing me from behind.

My wife’s arms lay strewn awkwardly across her chest, covering her stomach where the blood was concentrated. I walked to my wife and bent down to her face, peaceful and clean.

I leaned down farther to kiss her forehead for the last time. When I was finally ready to leave the cabin, I turned away from her.

Her cold, wet hand jumped and grabbed my hand, turning me around. I twisted quickly, her hand pulling me with a force she did not have in life. I faced her to see her eyes wide open, glaring. Sputtering, she forced out her last words.

You will taste this blood.”

Panic rushed back to me as her head lifted to my arm, her mouth wide and soaked red. Smacking her arm with my gun, I got away and ran out of the cabin, knowing she would not follow.

I ventured into the town. The sun was rising from the East, but this time it was mocking. Britannia’s fortune had not extended to me, and now she was laughing at my misfortune. Our failure.

I knocked on James’s cabin first; his was the closest. No answer. Before intruding on him, I knocked on Frederick’s, then Tom’s. No answer no answer no answer.

Back at James’s cabin, I decided to knock again. Nothing. I did not take a deep breath; I did not prepare myself; I did not take one last glance around me. Nothing was wrong, and I did not need these last things.

I went inside.

When I shook James, nothing was wrong. When I told his wife to wake up, nothing was wrong. When I took off their thin blanket, nothing was wrong.

Until I opened my eyes.

The gunshots in their abdomens were wrong, very wrong. My friends were dead, and everything was wrong. Everyone else was dead, too—I checked—even the people I hardly ever spoke with. None of them came back to life, though, and my wife did not reappear.

All because of my confusing failure.

I vomited in the town center, not knowing what was left for me. Picking at frozen deer meat, I sobbed to myself for not knowing what I did wrong. Did I finally understand? I thought so.

In the midst of crying, they approached me. I froze and did not turn to them.

“It’s time you come with us.”

I quickly glanced at my nearest surroundings, trying to find a weapon.

“Why?” I asked them.

“Because you’re the last one.”

And at that moment, I decided I did not want to die. I did not want to end up with a gunshot in my abdomen or worse, because I had a feeling I’d been saved for a reason. My senses came alive, and the smell of old furs rushed into my nose along with the sight of seven Indians surrounding the stump I sat on.

They all wore a different beast, but the one speaking wore the fur of a buck, the antlers on his head larger than those we found on the buck the day before. This was a fearful man, but I could see his body rotting. Much slower than the woman, but a few maggots were chewing away through his stomach, causing me to vomit again.

I saw that between two of the seven chiefs there was a large gap, and without hesitation I ran into the forest. I didn’t look back, and I ran until I my legs gave out. My eyes had given up long before that, so I didn’t know where I was. I lay gasping, suddenly scared that the rest of my life would be like this. When I finally caught my breath, I tried to stand, but instead I felt my world fall around me. I hit the bottom of the pit with a crack. I felt something stab me, and my cries tore through the quiet atmosphere.

Then I saw what I was lying in: a grave. Seven skeletons lay in the pit, and I knew they were the seven chiefs. The rotting furs adorned each skull, and I tried to look away from the maggots that had thrived on their meat, now trying to find scraps on the bones.

My eyes peered upward, looking for hope that I would not die with insects crawling through me. Instead of hope, I found the seven, somehow below and above me.

Were they spirits of God or the Devil? Was there no connection?

The leader, the buck, glared at me more closely than the others, and he spoke words that I felt he had been waiting to say.

“We now have your pale skin. It’s time we gave you something of ours.”

Another, one with a raccoon on his head, threw down a single spear into my stomach, forcing me farther down through the skeletons. I didn’t flinch; I was too absorbed with the seven.

“What did I do wrong?”

The seven laughed at me like I was a mistaken child.

“You fell in love with one of us. How could you rejoice in the death of something you love?”

“I… I don’t understand.”

The man became very angry in my dazed confusion.

“You all owe us a debt. We will not extinguish a people like you have, but this is how you all will pay. It just so happens you’re the one who was tested. There needs to be as much terror in you as there was in all the native children that’ve died as a result of your people.”

Then he chuckled for a moment, reverting from the tense scene.

“Kissing a dead woman? I wonder where that falls on the spectrum of Christian sin.”

The pain of the spear shot through me suddenly, and through my screams I managed to pull it out. I did not answer the seven, but I willed my way up the pit. Dying in this pit would be my hell, and no punishment would be needed in the afterlife. I hadn’t done anything wrong, though; I didn’t deserve this.

Somehow, after hours of clawing and climbing, I breathed the air of the grass and Indians. My blood dyed the white grass red, but I did not look down as I stood, victorious. I was a blotch of crimson in a sea of dead, pale grass.

To my right the naked woman stood, as rotten as possible before collapse. I took a lurching step toward her, and in the distance I think I could see the people of the colony rushing toward me, their gunshot wounds seemingly ignored. They weren’t real, for at this point I was trying to distinguish reality, hallucination, spirit, evil… My wife stood behind the woman. Her lips were a dark blue, darker than they ever got in the cold.

“You failed me, Howard,” she whispered ignorantly as she threw the only woman I ever loved into the pit with the dead seven.

“Marie, I—”

“Howard, I don’t have to explain anything to you. Let’s just go to bed.”

I obeyed her, and I lay down next to her in the grass. The seven stood around us again, but they made no noise. I looked at my wound, and I could have sworn I saw a single maggot beginning to tear away at my flesh.

Tearing away at my soul.

Before I fell asleep, I whispered to the dead.

“Sorry for everything.”

pencil

Jake Gogats is currently a high school student in New York. He enjoys theater, reading, and learning history to inspire pieces such as this. He’d like to thank the Toasted Cheese staff for providing writers with a great place to read, write, discuss, and get published! Email: fishy4242[at]gmail.com

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